On 29 April, we published an article seeking your questions on Israel and Palestine, the current conflict, the Bible, or anything you think is related to this that might be answered by one of our Aotearoa Baptist Biblical Scholars.

Philip Church is a member of Royal Oak Baptist Church and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Theology at Laidlaw College in Auckland. He has a PhD in New Testament and has taught Biblical Languages and Old and New Testament courses at Laidlaw for 15 years. In his retirement he has taught block courses in several countries in the Majority World. Philip has a longstanding interest in the Middle East and has travelled there several times, he has a particular interest in the Hebrews and the temple.

Thank you to those who sent in questions. To answer them, some questions have been conflated or dissected to respond more easily to what has been considered the underlying issue. Due to the number of questions, this will be published as instalments over the next few weeks. Not every question submitted will get a response. 

Click here for Part 1, published on 18 May 2024.

1. What is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism?

I have sometimes been accused of holding to “replacement theology,” by which some people mean that I believe that the church has replaced Israel in the purposes of God (or something similar). I usually respond by suggesting that since there is only one people of God, who has replaced whom? I think the charge is somewhat simplistic as also that response. The status of both unbelieving Israel and faithful Jews today is a complex question that simple answers cannot resolve. 

Another term for replacement theology is “supersessionism” and the best definition of that that I am aware of is by Terence Donaldson who writes that it is the idea “that the church has succeeded and replaced Israel as the people of God and has inherited everything of value in Israel's traditions” and consequently “pre-Christian Israel has been rendered obsolete.”[1] When set out as starkly as that it is unpalatable, to say the least. However, I am unsure that the New Testament sees it that way, and nor do I. Nonetheless, in a forthcoming essay on supersessionism, I conclude that according to the writer of the New Testament book Hebrews, since Christ had died and risen again, “it is no longer appropriate for Israel to relate to God as it had in the past.” I continue,

This does not however spell the rejection of Israel … Israel is still Israel and Jewish identity and ethnicity are compatible with allegiance to Christ. What is incompatible is a former covenant along with its associated cultus that was unable to achieve the perfection that Christ has achieved. What is superseded is not “Israel” but Israel's religious system – the former covenant with its temple and sacrifices as the Jewish Scriptures anticipated.[2]

My point about the Jewish Scriptures anticipating the supersession of the Old Testament sacrificial system is that while Leviticus prescribes a complex system of ritual observances to enable sinful people to approach a holy God, there are hints in the Old Testament itself that ultimately God was not pleased with that system. One of the clearest texts is Micah 6:6–8, 

“With what shall I come before the Lord

and bow myself before God on high? 

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, 

with calves a year old? 

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, 

with ten thousands of rivers of oil? 

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, 

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good,

and what does the Lord require of you 

but to do justice and to love kindness 

and to walk humbly with your God? 

Micah’s point is that doing justice, loving kindness and a life lived before God in humility was preferable to endlessly repeated sacrificial activity. Other texts along the same lines are Isaiah 1:10–18; Amos 5:21–24; Psalm 40:6–8. 

In Hebrews 10:5–10, the writer quotes and interprets Psalm 40:6–8. After quoting it in Hebrews 10:5–7, he begins his interpretation by combining everything vv. 6–7 of the Psalm say about sacrificial activity in a single sentence, “‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in tsacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law)” (Heb 10:8). Then he adds words from Psalm 40:8, which he says Christ spoke at the incarnation, “See, I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:9). He concludes that, by saying this, Christ “abolishes the first (the sacrificial system) to establish the second” (Heb 10:9), that is “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10).

According to the writer of Hebrews, the incarnate Christ prayed this Psalm to his Father at the incarnation and by so doing abolished Israel’s sacrificial system as a means of approach to God. It has been replaced by “a better hope through which we approach God” (Heb 7:19). As Peter the first-century Israelite said to the Jewish religious leaders, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Furthermore, it was to the Jewish leader Nicodemus that Jesus explained the necessity of new birth (John 3:1–7). 

What has been replaced is not Israel but Israel’s sacrificial system as a means of approach to God. God has not rejected his people (Rom 11:1) and if I read the rest of Romans 11 correctly, God has not finished working with Israel. Israel has not been replaced by the church, rather, “in Christ and the new covenant Israel is transformed, renewed, and perfected.”[3]

2. What does Paul mean when he says, “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26)?

To answer this question, we need to ask several other questions.[4] First, “Who is all Israel?” Is it (a) every single Israelite, (b) a combination of redeemed Jews and Gentiles, or (c) the elect within ethnic Israel?[5] Since Romans 11:25 refers to “part of Israel” and contrasts it with Gentiles, it seems clear that when v. 26 refers to “all Israel” Paul is not talking about the church comprising redeemed Jews and Gentiles. Consequently, we can exclude option (b). As for every single Israelite (option a), I note that Romans 11:1–10 mentions a faithful remnant “chosen by grace”, while “the rest were hardened.” In Romans 9:1 Paul expresses great anguish for his Jewish contemporaries were unbelieving, and “unsaved”. This indicates that Paul is not thinking of every Israelite. This leaves option (c), the elect within Israel, this faithful remnant. Paul is saying “all (the elect within) Israel will be saved.” 

This raises the question, “Why would he refer to the elect as ‘all Israel’?” The answer comes in Romans 9:6–8 and especially v. 6, “not all those descended from Israel are Israelites.” In Romans 9–11, Paul consistently speaks of a faithful remnant whom God has chosen from among his people. This faithful remnant comprises true Israelites chosen by God, all of whom will be saved.

The next question is “When does Israel get saved?” Michael Bird gives three options, “(a) Across the history of the church’s missionary outreach to Israel; (b) immediately before the second coming; or (c) during the second coming.”[6] On the day of Pentecost 3,000 Israelites came to faith (Acts 2:5–42), and it seems that the primitive church consisted mainly of believing Israelites. This has now been reversed as the church comprises a majority of Gentiles “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Nevertheless, Jewish people continue to come to faith. This seems to indicate that Israelites are saved throughout the course of history. On the other hand, the verse does seem to have a future orientation (“until the full number of the gentiles has come in”). We should expect that Israelites will continue to become believers in Messiah Jesus right up to the second coming, and it is possible (although debated) that Paul foresees a future large ingathering of Jewish people to Christ at that time, although it is unclear how and when this will happen.[7]

The final question is “How does Israel get saved?” Is it through faith in Jesus the Messiah or is it through the “Mosaic covenant remaining effectual for them?”[8] Romans 1:16–17 seems to exclude some ongoing effectiveness of the Mosaic covenant: it is “the gospel … [that] is God’s saving power for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” Paul teaches that salvation is found in Christ alone and consequently, it seems true that Jewish people will continue to find salvation in the Messiah.

Bird also considers the possibility of “a miraculous act at the second coming.”[9] One of the options considered for the second question is that all Israel is saved “immediately before the second coming” and this possibility is related to that. I do not find this suggestion anywhere in the New Testament, although some see it in Luke 21:24, which reads that “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations, until the times of the nations are fulfilled.” In his Luke commentary, Darrell Bock writes on this verse, 

This phrase suggests 3 things. First, the city’s fall is of limited duration … Second, there is a period in God’s plan when gentiles will dominate … [and third] Israel has a future in God's plan … it seems that the early church held to a kingdom hope that included Israel’s reincorporation in what eventually came to be expressed as millennial hope, a view called premillennialism.[10]

tBock connects “the times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24) with “the full number of the Gentiles (Romans 11:26).[11] But is that connection warranted? An important principle of Gospel interpretation is to compare passages that appear more than once across the Gospels. If we do this with Luke 21:24 we read,

Matthew 24:21–22

… at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.

Mark 13:19–20

… in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. 

Luke 21:23-24

… there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the nations, until the times of the nations are fulfilled. 

Notice that each Gospel writer indicates that God has limited the suffering that Jerusalem would endure. Matthew and Mark say specifically that the days have been cut short. Luke says the same thing differently. God has set a limit on the suffering endured by the people of Jerusalem. Luke does not say that the times of the Gentiles will be followed by the times of the Jews. I suggest that Bock has read this into Luke from the similar expression in Romans 11:26, which is in a quite different context. While God has a future for his people Israel, I don’t think the New Testament clearly defines that future and how it will eventuate, apart from saying that “all (the elect within) Israel will be saved.” It seems to me that Jewish people will continue to come to faith in Jesus their Messiah throughout history right up to the second coming, and this may happen in greater numbers as the second coming draws nearer.

3. What does the Bible say about the Promised Land?

The promised land is central to the Old Testament, with the word “land” being the fourth most common noun there, appearing over 2,500 times, a number only exceeded by “God,” “the Lord” and “Israel.” Land appears so frequently that Walter Brueggemann can say that “land is central if not the central theme of biblical faith.”[12] We could summarise this theme as the land promised, given, inhabited, and lost in exile, with restoration promised and subsequently achieved. On the other hand, the New Testament is almost completely silent about the land. It is not that land was not of central concern to First Century Judeans, however. They inhabited the land, to be sure, but were under Roman domination.[13] The situation described in Nehemiah 9:36–37 still applied, 

Here we are, slaves to this day, slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.

When was God going to intervene and restore their sovereignty (as suggested by the disciples in Acts 1:6)?

However, the New Testament is not completely silent about the land. In Romans 4:13 when discussing the realisation of God’s promises to Abraham, Paul writes, “the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” 

God’s promise of land to Abraham appears first in Genesis 12:7 (“To your offspring I will give this land”). It also appears in Genesis 15:18–21 (“To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the … River Euphrates”); Genesis 17:8 (“And I will give to you and to your offspring after you … all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding”); and Genesis 28:13–14 (to Jacob), “And the Lord … said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring … and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south”). 

Genesis 17 limited the extent of the land (“from the river of Egypt to the … the River Euphrates”), but when the promise was repeated to Jacob it was expanded so that Jacob’s descendants’ land holdings extend “to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south” without limit. Paul may have been reading this and realised that God’s promise of land was much wider than Canaan; it encompassed the entire world. God started with one man and some land. But now that man’s descendants include all who have faith in Jesus (Rom 4:16–17), wherever they live. Wherever believers in Jesus gather and worship the God of Abraham, that becomes part of the promised land. To limit it to present-day Israel (and what the Israeli Government calls “Judea and Samaria”) is to severely limit the promises of God who planned long ago to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham (Gen 12:1–3).

Another significant text is Ephesians 6:1–3, referring to the commandment to honour parents, “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). Paul describes this command as “the first commandment with a promise,” a promise he repeats, “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” (Eph 6:3). By the time we get to Ephesians “the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12) has expanded to encompass “the earth.”

One more relevant text is from Hebrews 11, that list of faithful people from Israel's past, of whom Abraham is the most important judging by the proportion of the chapter devoted to him (and to Sarah and the Patriarchs) in vv. 8–22. This is not the place to go into detail,[14] I simply note that Abraham set out for “a place that he was to receive as an inheritance” (v. 8). He never settled down in that place; rather, he lived in tents because he was looking for “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (v. 10). Later the writer explains that Abraham, Sarah and the Patriarchs were actually “seeking a homeland” (v. 14), but this homeland wasn’t where they had come from and wasn’t in the land where they were living as strangers; rather, it was “a better homeland, that is, a heavenly one” (v. 16). 

This is the only chapter in the Bible where the expression “a promised land” appears (v. 9) and it negates the importance of that land in favour of “a city with foundations and a heavenly homeland,” the homeland Revelation refers to as “the new heaven and earth” (Rev 21:1).

While the land is central to the Old Testament, there is a change of emphasis in the New, where the land promises appear in a new light. Paul sees God’s promise of numerous descendants for Abraham expanded to include all who have faith, and he sees similar expansion of the land promise. The slightly different perspective of the writer to the Hebrews is that the land is a temporary way station for God’s people on their pilgrimage to their heavenly homeland. In the light of these texts from the New Testament where the land promised to Abraham and his descendants is transformed, it seems wrong for followers of Jesus to attach any theological importance to that land. Since the gospel has gone out to all the world that land is no different from any other.

Next time

In the next instalment, I will look at the following three questions:

  1. What is the significance of Jerusalem?
  2. What is Zionism?
  3. What is the Millennium?
  4. What about Dispensational Premillennialism?


[1] Terence L. Donaldson, Jews and Anti-Judaism in the New Testament: Decision Points and Divergent Interpretations (London: SPCK, 2010), 20.

[2] Philip Church, “Hebrews and the Question of Supersessionism,” in The Oxford Handbook of Hebrews and the Catholic Epistles (ed. Patrick Gray; Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2024), 176.

[3] Richard B. Hays, “‘Here we Have no Lasting City’: New Covenantalism in Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (eds. Richard Bauckham et al, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 162.

[4] In what follows I depend on Michael F. Bird, Romans, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 390–95.

[5] By “ethnic Israel” I mean all the descendants of Abraham’s son Jacob/Israel throughout history, currently identified as the Jewish people. 

[6] Bird, Romans, 391.

[7] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 724 proposes a mass conversion of Jews at the second coming. Bird disagrees (Romans, 392).

[8] Bird, Romans, 391.

[9] Bird, Romans, 391.

[10] Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53 (BCNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 2: 1680–81. I will consider premillennialism in the next article.

[11] The NRSVUE has “times of the nations” in Luke 21:24, while NIV and NRSV read “times of the Gentiles.”

[12] Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (2nd ed; OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 3.

[13] See the discussion in N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 268–79.

[14] See Philip Church, “‘Here We Have No Lasting City’ (Heb 13:14): The Promised Land in the Letter to the Hebrews,” in The Gospel and the Land of Promise: Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible. Edited by Philip Church et al (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 45–57.

Photo: Screenshot from Google Maps, accessed 28 April 2024.

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